Where did you go, he asks in his sleepy voice. Rolling over, he turns his large frame to face me. ‘It’s nothing,’ I reply, sliding inside his extended arms. A warm place. ‘I’m sorry. Did I wake you up? I was thirsty and went to get a drink of water.’ I bury my nose in his chest. The soft feel of his pyjamas, body heat and skin scent. He is already sound asleep: I can’t move. I wait a full two minutes before slipping out of his arms.
‘Mama really wanted to see you,’ says Daniela. Auburn eyes, loose waves of matching hair. ‘Of course, Papa and my brother did too. We haven’t seen you at all lately.’ ‘I’m sorry. It’s been so hectic with Angela here.’ I say, taking a sip from my tiny cup of coffee. What Marv likes to call “bitter sludge” coffee. ‘Oh really...’ Daniela says, emptying an entire sachet of sugar into her coffee and stirring. ‘Hasn’t it been like that even before she got here?’ Her tone is casual, but I can tell she’s a little hurt. I can’t reply. Daniela is statuesque, with long legs. Her calves are finely shaped. Her slender face appears out of proportion to her abundant curves. Caving to the silence, Daniela asks in a different voice, ‘How long is she staying?’ ‘I’m not sure.’ I smile thinly.
‘I had a call from Angela at the office today,’ Marv says, as he dishes out green salad onto my plate. ‘Looks like she’ll be back here the day after tomorrow.’ ‘Oh really.’ I smile brightly. ‘And how was Rome?’ ‘She liked it. Said she’s been walking along the Tiber every day.’ I picture it. Angela, sunglasses on and walking with a map in one hand, stray locks spilling carelessly out of a lazy updo. The perplexing layers of clothing she likes to wear, as she browses in souvenir shops one after another. ‘How long will she be staying here?’ Daniela asks. She’s not exactly demanding an answer, but the question comes out sounding quite determined. It’s probably her personal sense of justice speaking. ‘Well, I have no idea,’ Marv replies casually. I look out the window. The green of the trees on the street is a blur, aglow in the street lights.
I know that everyone (but not Marv, everyone except for Marv) thinks I’m hard to deal with. At some point, Daniela came out and said it out loud. ‘Aoi, you’ve changed.’ It was winter, and we were riding the tram. I remember Daniela had a bag of roast chestnuts clutched in her black leather gloves. ‘You don’t let anyone close to you.’ I looked out the window. The tram rattled and clattered along the Via Torino under a cloudy sky that rain or mist could descend from at any moment. ‘Are you listening to me?’ Daniela’s been my best friend since the age of six. We were in the same class when we started primary school. ‘I knew I should’ve tried to stop you when you said you were going to university in Japan.’ Every Wednesday, we used to go to ballet class together after school. Daniela’s gym bag, black leotard, the freckles on the tip of her nose. Later I transferred to a different school, but Daniela and I stayed the best of friends. Maybe because our mothers were so close? We were always staying at each other’s houses. ‘It was four years,’ I said, still staring out the window, feet braced slightly apart against the swaying of the tram. ‘In four years anyone changes a little, don’t they?’ Daniela said nothing. I take my clothes off, tie my hair up on top of my head, and sink into the bathtub. My skin ripples in the clear warm water.
The city is constantly flooding with light. Since I came here, there hasn’t been a single day I didn’t look up at the sky. Limitless blue sky, coolly translucent as if painted in watercolor. Wispy clouds drift unobtrusively in that sky like the areas left unpainted on a sheet of white paper, dallying with the wind and light.
The Duomo towers over the centre of Florence- you can see it from almost anywhere. The half-sphere of the cupola engineered by architectural genius Brunelleschi is a cheerful sight, like a Gothic duchess with her skirt flared out. She’s a good landmark to take your bearings from in Centro (the center of town).
The more human beings try to forget, the more they’re unable to. Normally you don’t need to exert yourself to forget. The days pass one after another, and usually by the time you notice it, you’ve already forgotten. It’s normal to not even remember that you forgot something. Even if some day, you recall that come to think of it, something like that happened, you’re already over it: memory is like a mayfly’s wing, melting in the sun’s heat and gone forever.
When I whisper in her ear ‘exhibitionist’, she’ll press her face against my chest, reminding me she’s like a cat. If I leave the window open, she can disappear for days without a care, coming back stinking of cigarette smoke. With the unwelcome smell of other men in her long hair. But I haven’t ever complained about it. Because I don’t want a committed relationship. I don’t know if I can get rid of my memories.
On the street on the west side of the cathedral, I spot Memi running toward me. She notices me and waves. I wave back. The light is pouring down in between us. Rich light shining in innumerable motes of dust. Is it just us two who see that? Or do the crowds of tourists in the square see it the same way, after all?
On a Thursday morning in April, Narita Airport was full of suits. Neatly kept jackets matched with pants hustled past rows of vending machines, gleaming shoes clacking. Nina blinked again and again, feeling under-dressed in her Thai fisherman’s pants and flipflops. Looking around for where to go, she caught the eye of a tall foreigner who smiled at her reassuringly. She wasn’t alone.
An enticing smell drew her towards a window filled with plates of fake plastic food. The sign read ROYAL Coffee Shop. Glancing inside, she saw a long row of Japanese men sitting at the counter. The man on the end with dyed bright blue hair stood out like a sore thumb. She realized she didn’t know how to order and quickly moved away.
Narita Airport was full of suits. Neatly kept jackets matched with pants hustled past rows of vending machines, gleaming shoes tapping. Nina blinked again and again, feeling under-dressed in her Thai fisherman’s pants and flipflops. Looking around for where to go, she caught the eye of a tall foreigner who smiled at her reassuringly. She beamed back, quickly looked away to avoid potentially awkward smalltalk with a stranger.
Actually, what I realized for the first time was that someone could have a book even if they didn't write it themselves, much to my surprise. The greatest sadness of this era is that anything and everything can be mass-produced. That is the reason my book came out.
For what it is, it's not a bad book.
It sold well.
The young woman in the green jersey glanced over again and again, over the big café table, her eyes searching but impersonal, her mind thinking of artistic representations as she began to sketch out a character for the stranger sitting at the other end.
The stranger, typing on her own laptop, submitted to her gaze and didn’t return it, with a feeling like having one’s hair cut: submitting to another’s expertise. She wondered what the words were and even if they were working on the same 100 day project.
I sometimes share a meal with the Oi family, who live close by, so you could say I'm enjoying my golden years. The long years of hard work were worthwhile; I have a little savings, so that if my body gives out I can afford to enter a rest home, with some of it invested in shares for me by Mrs. Oi, and I watch every penny I spend.
With that income, I was able to buy a few more shares.
However, all the secrets of keeping house that I know are in there, so I don't feel like going over that again. Whatever it may be, you only need one: there's no need to have more than one of the same thing. That is also the secret to living frugally.
In the time I was apprenticed, at the beginning of the Showa period, in the salaryman families of the Tokyo Yamanote, as maids had become scarce, I'd never be called "Taki-ya", I'd always be called "Taki-san", with the honorific "san" added, as I was a precious resource. In the good families of Tokyo, that's generally how it was. In the time I started doing that work, a saying that all the wives knew was "Without a good maid, there's no good family."
Basically, a maid's apprenticeship was training for brides before marriage, although as it happens, I never married. It was the apprenticeship to become a good wife, and you can't say that about the womens' colleges of today, and it wasn't such a foolish career, but somehow, people think it was something like the life of a slave.
According to village gossip, at that time girls went to Tokyo with job offers, not knowing where they were going and knowing no one in the city, and were sold by unscrupulous dealers to brothels. Fair-skinned beauties of the village had also been approached by geisha houses wanting to buy them.
Girls were usually bought at about seven years of age, when it was being decided whether they'd go to school or not.
Be that as it may, I wasn't a beauty by any stretch of the imagination, and no such offer came for me: the place where I was to go was decided in advance through contacts of my parents, so I could rest easy on that point, as we'd heard it was a very good household. Girls of twelve or thirteen never did have anything resembling forethought. No matter how much times change, that's one thing that never will.
To get up in the morning before anyone else in the house, and to go to sleep after everyone else, were their instructions; how important it was not to be a loud-mouth, and not to speak any longer than necessary for taking orders, not to rule out the possibility of other work as I liked schoolwork, not to mistake childcare for play.......like this, everyone gave me a piece of their mind, but while listening to them my cheerful nature told me "Childcare must be really fun if people can mistake it for playing," and it didn't oppress my spirits at all.
Today, a young woman, an editor from the publishing company, came to my house, saying that she'd like to start planning the next book.
Well before this, we had discussed a concept for another book.
"Of course, we're not going to cover the art of housekeeping again." she said. "Instead, what you feel about the seasons, delicious household meals, how to deal with relationships; nostalgic tales of Tokyo would be good, things that only you would know."
It's not a bad idea.
I know what she's talking about.
But somehow, I feel that's just a little different to what I'd like my legacy to be.
Someone like me has nothing to say to people, except for the way to get all the ingrained white water deposits off the sink.
That's what I thought.
However, I'm already almost ninety years old now, and thinking of my uncertain tomorrows, I wanted to write about something more important.
There is hardly anyone left who experienced the time in which I was an apprentice maid. Someday, the word "maid" could really disappear from Japan, and no doubt, this could be a serious problem for researchers: I thought about leaving something behind from my memories of the 1960s.
"I said 'goddit' before begause yeh asged me if I goddit, ma'am, I though' id was fine." I concluded pointedly, shocking my aunt.
"Whad?" she said, and there was a short silence,
"If one is with people from the regions, without meaning to, one may fall into using dialect. One must take care not to do so." she enunciated in Tokyo dialect.
After that, even if I wanted to say something, it would only come out in dialect, so I was silent, and my aunt as well, perhaps realizing that a slip into dialect would render her preaching meaningless, shut up her ears and fell asleep.
I was such a country girl, no words can describe the shock I felt when we arrived in Tokyo. I will never forget the scene I saw as the train pulled in to Ueno Station.
The platforms were teeming with people, there were innumerable fat rails, extending out in all directions, just as you'd expect of Tokyo: from here there's no place you couldn't reach in all of Japan, we sighed. With whistles blowing continually, freight trains going by and plumes of sooty smoke, it was exactly as if I had been transported into a dream.
When we continued on to a government railway line and got off at Otsuka, I remember the street lined with shops, the people on their way to work, the torrent of bicycles, the pack horses, even a shiny black motorcar, and the bell-ringing trams departing: it was so lively, that when walking it seemed that at any moment I'd bang into something, and I felt dizzy.
Escorted by my aunt, we went to a major street where city trams were coming and going, where Gokoku-ji Temple lay to the right of Otsuka-Sakashita-cho, and in the middle of the fresh greenery of Kubomachi was Bunrika University which was newly built, everything so superbly set out, and on the corner was the Otsuka Womens' Apartments.
The following year, the daughter of one of Konaka-sensei's acquaintances had her hands full with her young ones, so I was told to go there, and I became the maid of a different house. Compared to the large establishment of Konaka-sensei, it was a little house, but the days I spent with the mistress of the house and the young master are filled with all my most precious memories.